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House of Lords

Thursday, 18th July 2002.

The House met at three of the clock (Prayers having been read earlier at the Judicial Sitting by Lord Bishop of Derby): The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

The Lord Chancellor: Leave of Absence

The Lord Chancellor (Lord Irvine of Lairg): My Lords, before public business begins, I take this opportunity to inform the House that I am to perform the formal opening ceremonies of two new magistrates' courthouses at Beverley and Bridlington on Wednesday, 24th July, when the House will sit. Accordingly, I trust that the House will grant me leave of absence.

British Airports

Lord Wallace of Saltaire asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What action they have taken to ensure that programmes of modification and improvement now under way at British airports allow for the possibility that the United Kingdom may in the future opt in to the full provisions of the Schengen Convention.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, British airports plan their facilities on the basis that the United Kingdom will retain its existing system of frontier controls.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, does the Minister remember that the report published more than two years ago on Britain's Schengen opt-out suggested that it would be reasonable in all future modifications to British airports to take the precautionary approach that at some point the Government might change their mind? Does he recall that there was strong evidence from the British Airports Authority that the costs of doing so at speed if the Government were to change their mind would be considerable and perhaps prohibitive?

Does he accept that, now that the Government have opted back in to most provisions of the Schengen agreement, it is not unlikely that the Government will change their mind during the next few years, and that joined-up government would suggest that modifications now under way to Heathrow, and so on, should have started better to segregate passengers arriving from outside the European Union from those arriving from within the EU?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, the Government would certainly have no objection if the British Airports Authority or individual airports were

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to plan their future provision on the basis of the Schengen agreement. But I cannot agree with the noble Lord that we have changed or will change our view. We have not signed the implementing convention of 1990. The Schengen protocol allows us to implement all or part of the Schengen Convention, on the basis of which we have opted in for police and judicial co-operation on crime but out on immigration controls. The frontier protocol enables us to retain our frontiers. That is the current position.

Baroness Knight of Collingtree: My Lords, will the Minister accept my gratitude, and take note that, as joining Schengen would force Britain to abolish all her frontier controls, many people will appreciate what he has said today and give him their full support?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, that is the position that the Government took. I am grateful for the words of the noble Baroness.

British Passports: Fraud

3.3 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Croy asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they will make changes to the procedure for issuing British passports in order to eliminate fraud.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the United Kingdom Passport Service takes passport fraud seriously and already has a range of checks in place to prevent and detect fraud. Those now include a check on the death records of under-18 year-olds in England and Wales. That new check represents a significant step forward in our efforts to crack down on the fraudulent use of birth certificates. The Passport Service has a major programme of work under way to counter identity fraud. That work is complementary to the recommendations arising from the Cabinet Office's identity fraud study, which was published on 3rd July and could lead to future changes in passport issuing procedures to take account of the increasing threat from fraud.

Lord Campbell of Croy: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. Is the report correct that the method used to obtain a British passport in the book and film, The Day of the Jackal—searching parish and graveyard records—is still possible? If so, what action are the Government taking in view of the present threat of international terrorism?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the Government take the so-called Day of the Jackal loophole seriously. Of course, any person is entitled in law to see publicly available indexes to the civil registration records and to buy a certified copy of any register entry. The events of September 11th have ensured that a sharpening of procedures and significant broad checks are in place.

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The UKPS requires the provision of information declared to be true on its application form. Birth certificates are not proof of identity; additional evidence—driving licence, medical card, national insurance card or benefit book—is sought in certain cases. On occasion, passport applicants are called in for a personal interview.

We take identity theft very seriously and a detailed action plan is now in place to prevent it. I may add that the statistics for fraud are very low. It is estimated that 0.03 per cent of all issues are fraudulent—about 1,500 cases out of 5.5 million passports issued annually.

Lord Dholakia: My Lords, when the maroon passport replaced the black one, we were given to understand that the new passport could be electronically scanned to avoid fraud. I pass through our airports on many occasions, but never once has my passport passed through any electronic gadget. When is such a system likely to be introduced to avoid fraud?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the noble Lord is right to say that machine-readable detection methods are being developed. The pace and development of that technology must be sharpened, because we want to crack down on fraud as far as is humanly possible. Other important developments are likely to take place with biometrics, in which the iris, handprint or fingerprints can be read. All of those options are possible; they are all under active consideration and are being investigated by the UKPS as ways further to crack down on fraud.

Lord Lipsey: My Lords, will my noble friend remind the House of the number of passports going missing in the post between the Passport Office and the applicant? If he does not have the figure to hand and decides to write to me with it, will he do so rather more expeditiously than have the Government in reply to a related Question on lost documents that I tabled on 14th January?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, my noble friend is entitled to a fulsome apology for that delay. I understand that his Question is due for reply during the next week.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, does the Minister agree that, in addition to an apology, the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, deserves an Answer to his Question? If entitlement cards are introduced, is it envisaged that the Passport Agency would manage and operate the scheme?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the entitlement card project is open for consultation, so those finer details have yet to be worked out. It is important that we respect the consultation period. The matter is delicate. Of course, there are great benefits to be gained by the development of the entitlement card.

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The Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency and the UK Passport Service are working closely together on those projects.

Lord Marlesford: My Lords, may I draw the Minister's attention to a large loophole in passport administration? I am sure that he knows, because I received this information in a Written Answer some time ago, that less than 5 per cent of the passports of people who die are sent back. Is he aware that the street value of a dead person's passport is about double that of a stolen passport—for the obvious reason that the chances are that the stolen passport has been reported and, at least in theory, cancelled? Last year, I asked the Government twice whether the Passport Service was now notified of someone's death, so that their passport could be cancelled. On 31st October, the Minister, in a Written Answer, said:

    "The Passport Service is seeking to establish arrangements to receive routine notifications of death as part of its work on improving fraud countermeasures".—[Official Report, 31/10/01; col. WA 161.]

Two weeks later, I received the following Written Answer:

    "We have not started to establish arrangements requiring the Government to be routinely notified of the death of United Kingdom passport holders, and we have no plans to do so".—[Official Report, 14/11/01; col. WA 81.]

Will the Minister kindly put into effect immediate plans to ensure that the Passport Service is notified by the Registrar General that people have died, so that their passports can be cancelled?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, that was a valuable question, and my brain cells are working overtime on it. I shall take the important suggestions made by the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, to heart. I shall have words with the director of the United Kingdom Passport Service.

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